For more than a month, while Algonquin First Nation members harvested plentiful pickerel, walleye and pike from the Ottawa River, they had no idea toxic sewage could also be flowing in the water.

A month ago, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), the company that operates the Chalk River nuclear research facility, notified Kebaowek First Nation that there was an issue with toxic effluent, but they were assured it was being taken care of, said Chief Lance Haymond. At first, Haymond didn’t see it as a problem because Kebaowek has a sewage facility.

“We didn’t even raise a red flag that what was going on was serious,” he told Canada’s National Observer.

Then, CBC News called about its investigation that revealed the effluent had “acute lethality failure,” meaning the sewage was toxic to fish. Suddenly, Haymond understood that the effluent might be affecting the reproduction cycle of local fish, threatening not only this year’s spawn but future ones as well.

He worried because Algonquin fish harvesters had already been on the river for weeks and sport fishers were all set to enter the waterways for their catch, too, he said.

“We are out there harvesting the fish and bringing that home and eating it and feeding it to their families, then nobody knows what's going on,” Haymond said, pointing to the elders and children who eat the catch of Kebaowek and other Algonquin First Nations in the region.

An investigation is currently trying to identify the source of toxic conditions within the sewage facility. Detergents or cleaning solutions used in the laboratories are a possible cause, CNL told Canada’s National Observer in a statement.

“The discharge from the sewage treatment facility does not threaten the environment or the public,” the CNL statement continued, while also confirming the non-compliance filed by Environmental and Climate Change Canada is not associated with radioactive contaminants.

“What's absolutely crystal clear is that there's still too much secrecy around what's going on,” Chief Lance Haymond said about the nuclear facility.

Canada’s National Observer contacted Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to ask if fish in the river is safe to consume. Canada’s National Observer will update the article to reflect comment from the federal government.

Environment and Climate Change Canada declined to comment because the department lacks the expertise to speak on the issue, a spokesperson said.

The sewage incident has left Haymond “deeply concerned,” given that CNL will manage low-level nuclear waste on-site for hundreds of years now that its near-surface disposal facility is approved.

“What's absolutely crystal clear is that there's still too much secrecy around what's going on,” Haymond said.

Haymond is calling for an Algonquin-led monitoring system with Kebaowek First Nation involvement. Pikwakanagan’s long-term relationship agreement included monitoring, but now Kebaowek also wants to be included in that work.

In January, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission greenlit a nuclear waste storage facility in Chalk River, Ont., after a years-long battle waged by concerned citizens, environmentalists and First Nations. The lone Algonquin First Nation on the Ontario side, where Chalk River sits, has a relationship agreement with CNL.

Kebaowek responded by launching a court challenge questioning whether the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adequately considered by nuclear regulators before the Chalk River waste disposal facility was approved.

Last week, Kebaowek First Nation sent letters to the International Atomic Energy Agency asking for an international review of the proposed project and other proposals of the nuclear research facility.

The near-surface disposal facility will see up to one million cubic metres of radioactive waste buried in a shallow mound at Chalk River Laboratories (CRL), about 190 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. Project proponents argue Canada must find a long-term solution to store low-level nuclear waste, some of which is currently not well-managed.

— With files from Natasha Bulowski

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

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